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10 Year Old is Angry at Homeschooling: Learning Disability?

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Dr. Markham,
I am concerned about my 10 year old son. I home educate my two children, DS 10 and DD 6. My husband is a midwife, works long shifts, so is actually around a lot and we have a lot of family time.

We do positive parenting and try not to make any sort of demand without a reason and will listen to objections, and if reasonable allow a delay i.e: "would you put your sweet wrappers in the bin please" "Oh, but I am just in the middle of this game!" "OK, well as soon as you get to a place in the game you can pause, would you put them in the bin." Hopefully the request is then completed and no fuss made.

Both our children are independent and with that can come some defiance, but generally they will listen.

Lately our son's defiance has become more prominent as regards learning. We do formal maths & literacy - he is a very advanced reader, but hates writing. He fights all the time and it is a battle that often degenerates into yelling and unpleasantness on both sides. Tears, anger, guilt & upset. The work is then still eventually done, but not always if the fight is very bad.

We took him out of school because we were dragging him there crying and picking him up upset or in trouble. He began to be labeled as a trouble maker, we gave him 8 months, it was bad from the end of his first week in school. The staff said we know he's bright, but he won't do the work, he just refuses, sits under the table or will sit in the book corner. They couldn't make him work. The only time he enjoyed it was playtime, story time and when they were able to play in class.

It is still like this now. If he is happy with what he is doing, he's fine. If a demand is made of him that he doesn't want, let battle commence. He can be very impatient with us & DD, quick to flare up. He will take himself off to his room or outside when he is very cross, eventually drifts back and is OK.

I wondered if there is some sort of strategy you could recommend, before making the drastic move of child psychologists. As when it happens we are all upset and affected by it for the whole day and it is happening frequently, several times a week. We always hoped he would grow out of it, but he hasn't and in a way it is worse now. I don't know what to do, school is not the answer as he will do the same there and be in constant trouble & upset, plus hate me for sending him.

We just want him to be happy. In between the rages and yelling, he is loving and happy and forgets the bad events faster than me! He is so up and down, it has got to the stage where I wake up dreading getting him to do some learning because it will end in battle. Unfortunately, we live in Jersey in the UK and they test them every year, so we feel pressured to do some formal learning, the rest is child lead. If you can give me any pointers I would be so appreciative!


Your situation sounds stressful, for you and your daughter, as well as your son. It is also not a good model of relationships for either of your children to be growing up with. When I read your letter, something doesn't add up for me. Your style of parenting is much like my own — easy going and respectful, setting limits but with understanding of the child's perspective. That approach should not provoke such struggles with your son, and should not create a kid who is prone to rages and yelling.

You say that your son's flare-ups all stem from his resistance to your learning assignments. Let's consider what could cause these tantrums.

1. He has a learning disability that makes the work hard for him?

2. He finds the work you assign him boring?

3. He has issues related to managing his anger (impatient and quick to flare up), or even some deeper issue, possibly biological?

4. His school resistance triggers you to act in a more controlling, anxious manner when it comes to teaching him, which creates a negative spiral?

5. He is feeling "pent up" or frustrated because he's ready for a bigger social world or needs more independence?

6. He needs more physical activity?

7. He resists doing work he doesn't like, just because he can?

Let's take these one at a time.

#1- Smart kids have been known to hide learning disabilities straight through high school. Could it be possible that he has a learning disability of some kind? Since you teach him, you can probably evaluate this. If you have any suspicion at all that he cannot actually handle some part of the work, then he should be evaluated by a psychologist trained in learning disabilities. In fact, I think you probably want to schedule this evaluation right away since it is the most likely explanation for your son's behavior and he needs your help to address it.

#2 -- Gifted children are often bored by traditional rote learning approaches. I assume, since you mention "child-lead" learning, that you are doing your utmost to be sure that both of your children have interesting work that relates to their own interests, so that is not likely to be the issue here, but you might want to give some attention to ways you can spice up any "mandated" learning. If you can get him excited enough about something he is interested in--researching bridges and building one, doing chemistry experiments, researching a big battle and building a battlefield diorama--you might find that the excitement about that project overflows into the rest of his work, making everything easier.

#3- If your son is disrespectful with you and his sister, that is a separate issue from the learning tantrums. A ten year old, even a sensitive one with "big feelings," can learn to manage his emotions so that he doesn't "flare up" often at the people he lives with. This seems more important to me than the learning fights, because his "emotional intelligence" will ultimately be more important to his future than his intellectual learning. It is critical to address this issue before adolescence. (My book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, should help you support your son in learning to manage his emotions.)

#4- I can certainly understand your being frustrated in this situation. However, you, as his mother, need to consistently and calmly hold the expectation that everyone in your household will interact civilly with everyone else. Parents also need to model that calm and civility, even in the face of kids' "tantrums." There is no chance he will learn to manage his anger if he is being yelled at.

#5- Believe it or not, puberty begins at 10 for many kids. It may be that your son is feeling "pent up" and needs more social outlets beyond his family, now that he is ten. Does he participate with other kids in sports or other activities? If not, I would highly recommend finding opportunities for him to do so. I am a big fan of home schooling, but only when kids get ample opportunity to develop social intelligence by interacting with peers. Of course, this can't be the whole issue, since he had the same issue when he was at school with other children.

#6 - My experience with boys this age — and girls too, for that matter — is that they do better with ample physical exercise. Often, kids who don't get enough exercise are testy and physically on edge.

#7 -- This is essentially what the school said about him. And yes, some work is unpleasant. My own son at age ten hated writing by hand -- I guess it was hard for his fine motor skills, even though he was fine playing sports. (His handwriting still leaves something to be desired, but then, so does mine.) So since your son hates writing, you might want to let him do his writing on the computer instead of by hand. That might solve a lot of what is unpleasant for him, if writing tasks are always when his defiance comes up.

BUT it is pretty unusual for a child just to refuse to do the work, which is why I suggested the idea of a learning disability. I still think that's the most likely explanation.

It is also unusual for a child to simply refuse to do what a parent asks, if that child has a good relationship with the parent and wants to please her. Since he is lovely in between spats, it sounds like you and he actually have a good relationship. Is it possible that he thinks if he gives you a hard enough time, he won't have to do the work? Sometimes parents who are too lax in setting limits do find their children learn that they can ignore the limits the parents set. (Just to clarify, kids need limits, set with empathy. Neither limits nor empathy alone works, they need both.) If this is indeed the reason, you will need to have a talk with him, something along the lines of:

"I love you and want to teach you at home, because I know you did not like school. But lately you have been refusing to cooperate when I ask you to do school work. Can you tell me why?....Ok, I hear that you do not want to do this school work. But it is my job as your mom to be sure you are educated, so you do need to do the work, either at home or at school. I can tell you later more about why I think learning is exciting and important. But right now I need to say that you can only study at home if you will do the work I ask you to do. I cannot be your teacher if you won't do what I ask, and that will mean that you will have to go back to school.....How about this? Any assignment that you don't want to do, it is your responsibility to give me an alternate assignment that will accomplish the same learning. OK?" (Here you give him some control.) "I will commit to you that I will be respectful and civil to you, and will not yell at you. And I expect you to act civil and respectful to me as your mother and as your teacher. If you need ideas about helping you to control your temper, we can work on that together. But you and I need to agree right now that we will keep calm, respectful voices with each other, or you won't be able to study at home and you'll have to go back to school. Ok?"

Then, when he starts to get angry, you can calmly remind him that he needs to control his temper, and that you'd like him to take a few minutes to calm down. Give him as much time as he needs throughout the day to keep himself calm, but don't let him do the rewarding stuff (TV, games, even pleasure reading) until he completes the work that he fought with you about, or agrees with you on an alternate assignment.

You will also need to control your own temper, of course. You may want to try meditating, or repeating a mantra like "This too shall pass" or "I can stay calm." Definitely listen to him and offer empathy, which will help defuse his tantrum. (That doesn't mean you don't enforce your expectations, just that you acknowledge his feelings: "You really hate the idea of doing any writing at all, don't you? Well, we do need to do some writing, that's my responsibility as your teacher. What can we do to make it more palatable?"

Do whatever you have to, including take a parental time-out or biting your tongue, to avoid yelling at him.

I am not a big fan of rewards, but since he is already ten, you might find that he would get excited about a chart that lets him give himself a star for every assignment that he completes without a fuss (whether it was your idea or one of his alternate ideas.) You and he can agree on a prize once he completes a small number of stars, such as the right to choose his own work for the whole day. You can gradually increase the number of fuss-free assignments you expect of him to earn each prize. If you stay away from material rewards but instead use his achievements to give him more control of his work, and if you make sure that it is achievable for him, he will probably find such a chart empowering. And after awhile he will have learned not only new study skills, but a new habit: controlling his temper.

Dr. Laura

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